Has the controversy over sharing your personal data with Facebook convinced you to abandon WhatsApp? You are not alone in this case. One of its main competitors, Telegram, said on January 12 that it had passed the 500 million user mark. If you are one of them, be careful: with a few clicks, you can be exposed to dozens of scams.

Crooks have indeed hijacked one of the features offered by the encrypted messaging application to post classified ads. Sexual services, delivery of drugs or manifestly counterfeit goods at bargain prices are included in this “catalog”. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they are in fact scams using a system of recharging prepaid bank cards to extract several tens, even hundreds, of euros from gullible victims who find themselves without any legal means of recovering their money.

Created in 2013 by the brothers Nikolaï and Pavel Durov, Telegram acquired in mid-2019 an unprecedented feature in the market for encrypted messaging applications: the possibility of creating and joining geolocated chat rooms. . At the time, Telegram teams were touting a way to open “a new world of geolocated group chats for conferences, festivals, stadiums, campuses, or to chat with people who are used to meeting in the same cafe”.

In practice, a glance at the public groups created by users quickly reveals that their purpose is quite far from the initial promise. From the home page of the application, just open the “People nearby” section of the main menu and allow Telegram to access the geographic position of their phone. By scrolling down the screen, and provided you live in a relatively densely populated area, a handful of public groups, some of which have fairly self-explanatory names, appear on the screen..

Examples of geolocated public discussion groups in the east of Paris and around Aix-en-Provence. (TELEGRAM)

Whatever the group chosen, there is a good chance of finding an identical pattern: users innocently try to start a discussion, through messages embedded under erotic or pornographic photos of young women offering sexual services paying. Other little words relay home drug delivery services, and more rarely clothing or perfume sales.

All these illegal classifieds displayed on the application have several points in common. First, their unbeatable price: some offer baroque offers such as “15 grams of good shit at 50 euros plus 30 minutes of pipe [fellation] and fuck free [sic]”, where a gram of cannabis costs on average 10 euros for grass and 7 euros for resin, according to figures from the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction dated 2018.

Examples of scams posted on public geolocated Telegram messaging newsgroups. (TELEGRAM)

Another common denominator: the mystery surrounding the real identity of the authors of these announcements. “Me, I want to see who I’m talking to before I make a date with someone. But every time I try to make a video call with one of these people, she either refuses or asks me for money. accept to pick up “Emil * laughs. This 44-year-old Romanian worker, who arrived in France in 2006, tells franceinfo that he made contact with several people via the geolocated public groups of Telegram, hoping to meet prostitutes.

“Now, I spot scams easily: these accounts often feature portraits of porn actresses on profile photos. But I know almost all of them!”

Emil, Telegram user

to franceinfo

Finally, the requested payment method is always similar: “As soon as you are asked to pay with Transcash tickets, you can be sure it is a scam”, continues the forties, who says he takes pleasure in entering the game of crooks before exposing their lies.

Rather than a payment in cash or in cryptocurrency, the alleged prostitutes and drug sellers ask their victims to go to a tobacco shop or to a specialized site to buy a top-up allowing them to fund their funds. prepaid payment cards.

Introduced in France at the end of the 2000s, these cards are sold in tobacco bars, grocery stores and newsstands. Most of them are not linked to a real bank account on which it is possible to make transfers or withdrawals. “They are electronic money and work with a pre-load system: you can never spend more than the amount you have loaded there”, explains to franceinfo Julien Lasalle, head of the monitoring service for cashless means of payment at the Banque de France.

“This can have several advantages. For example, you can give your child a prepaid card with a specific budget for their pocket money, or use one only for your online purchases: this way you can be sure that even in the event of a hack , you will not lose more money than you put on your card “, abounds Rémi Domenge, marketing manager of Transcash, one of the companies that market these famous cards, sometimes sold without request for proof of identity. “Prepaid cards can also pose problems in the fight against fraud and money laundering, since some manage to fund their card by diverting top-ups bought by others from tobacconists”, adds Julien Lasalle.

The victims of the scams posted in the groups on Telegram are indeed systematically invited to photograph and to transmit to the seller a code, printed on the invoice of the purchased recharge. This then allows crooks to add funds to their prepaid card, before disappearing into the wild.

However, the law prevents criminals from taking too much advantage of this system. “The possibilities of recharging these cards are governed by a European directive. Beyond a certain amount, it is only possible to top them up from a nominative means of payment”, precise Julian The room. Transcash cards available without an identity document can therefore only be funded by a maximum of 150 euros per month.. What push the crooks to juggle anonymous cards to hope to rake in substantial sums.

Are these prepaid bank card scams widespread? When contacted, the police and gendarmerie services dedicated to the fight against digital crime did not respond to requests from franceinfo. According to data from the European Central Bank, around 3.7 million prepaid cards were in circulation in France in 2019, without it being possible to know the proportion of these cards used for malicious purposes. In any case, the phenomenon does not only affect France, since the German (link in English) and South African press (link in English) also report it.

In order to limit fraud, Transcash insists on the fact that “coupons are not a bargaining chip and should only be used to top up your own card”. A warning to this effect is also printed on the refills issued by tobacconists. Julien Lasalle finally recalls some basic principles: “In every transaction, the least of things is to ensure the quality of the counterparty, and to try to use a means of payment which is difficult to circumvent by malicious people. When we talk about prostitution or drug trafficking, it is unfortunately difficult to ensure that we are dealing with a person you trust! “ Unfortunately for the victims of the con artists of these couriers, “It is difficult to push the door of a police station to try to resolve a commercial dispute with an illegal service vendor.”

Also contacted, the Telegram teams did not respond to our requests. However, the application invites its users to report illegal content by e-mail when it is publicly available, which is the case with geolocated newsgroups.

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